Unthinkable ARG: ‘Director’s Commentary,’ part one
Editor’s note: It’s not often you get to say something like “This post was almost delayed due to government intervention.” But over the weekend, while traveling from Los Angeles to New York, Unthinkable writer Mark Sable was detained by the Transportation Safety Administration after a random luggage search turned up a script for his BOOM! Studios series.
“Nothing like starting the day explaining you’re not a terrorist, but writing about them,” he said on Twitter. “Just hope TSA writes a spoiler free review for Unthinkable.”
Luckily for us, TSA let him go and he made his flight. If they hadn’t, I might not have been able to post the first part of his “director’s commentary” on the alternate reality game, or ARG, that he and BOOM! conducted in March to help promote Unthinkable. In this first post, Mark introduces the book and the ARG concept, and walks us through the first mission.
Also, if you’re in New York, be sure to stop by Jim Hanley’s Universe this Wednesday, when the first issue comes out, as Mark and cover artist Paul Azaceta will be there from 6 to 8 p.m. signing it.
By Mark Sable, writer/creator of Unthinkable
What is Unthinkable?
Unthinkable, my new comic from BOOM! Studios, is the fictional spy thriller rooted in the real world. After 9/11, the reaction of many was that this was something “out of a Tom Clancy novel.” Our government took it seriously, and commissioned a think tank made up of thriller writers. Their goal: to come up with worst-case terror scenarios, so that we could devise ways to stop them before the terrorists even had a chance to plot them.
The comic tells the story of Alan Ripley, a fictional young writer in the mold of Tom Clancy, who join this real-life think when his brother is killed on 9/11. Almost a decade later, the nightmare scenarios he imagined start coming true.
What is the Unthinkable ARG? What the Hell is an ARG, for that matter?
An ARG (Or Alternate Reality Game) is, according to Wikipedia, an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform. It takes place in real time, the designers control the characters (as opposed to video game AI) who the players interact with directly, through web sites, e-mail, etc. in order to solve plot-based challenges and puzzles.
The Unthinkable ARG is the world’s first ARG created for a comic book. Marketing comics, especially non-superhero comics, is extremely difficult. But BOOM! Studios has perhaps the best marketing director in the business. Together with Dafna Pleban and Ian Brill, they came up with the idea of using an ARG to help build excitement for the book. I was sold immediately –- after all, Unthinkable is nothing if not a comic book that blurs the line between fiction and reality.
We “recruited” players to work for the fictional private military contractor known as WOLPACK PMC, the villains of Unthinkable (or are they…). After going to the site, they had to answer a series of questions about their experience with the military and espionage, their legal status and their political beliefs. They were told of the rules of the contest, and when the sign-up period ended, they were given a rather unique mission. Spying on, and eventually hunting down, supporting characters in the comic.
“Creator’s Commentary?” Are you really that much of a narcissist?
Yes, I am that narcissistic. But I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking me how I put the ARG together. And to me, the ARG wasn’t just about providing a gaming experience. I wanted to create free, interactive supplementary material for the comic. The 21st century equivalent of Watchmen’s “Under The Hood,” if you will.
Since the game is closed, I want to give readers who didn’t have the chance to play the opportunity to have access to the extras. While playing the game is in no way necessary to the experience of reading the comic, I’d like to think it enhanced the experience. This director’s commentary (for lack of a better word) is a way to show you what you might have missed, things that will pay off in the comic.
Recruitment … or, could you have been a member of the Wolfpack?
Here are the questions (since recruitment is now disabled) from WolfpackPMC.com:
Have you been in law enforcement, the military, intelligence services?
Have you ever killed in the line of duty?
If not, would you be willing to?
If so, were you ever SUCCESSFULLY prosecuted for such action?
Do you speak any of the following languages: Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashtun, Hindi, Russian, Mandarin?
Are you unable to travel to foreign countries for fear of prosecution from war crimes?
Are your loved ones/next of kin particularly litigious?
Originally, I wanted to be able to categorize players into “hunters” and “hunter-killers” based on their answers to those questions, and customize their e-mails accordingly. The more aggressive “hunter killers would be admonished for their overzealousness, and reminded that they were not to break the rules of this country or any other. At the same time, we would tell the more risk averse “hunters” that they were going to need to up their game if they wanted to succeed. Or did they want the terrorists to win?
Ultimately, that would have required more money and manpower than we had to implement. So the answers to these questions had no bearing on the game, but hopefully provided some flavor.
Regardless of their answers, players received the following recruitment e-mail:
“WELCOME TO THE WOLFPACK.
Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take part in our TALENT IDENTIFACTION PROGRAM. TIP graduates have gone on to be successful Wolfpack Personnel, often the “TIP” of the spear on our most dangerous missions.
Our evaluation suggest you are an ideal candidate for our brand new Opens Source Intelligence Gathering (OSIG) project. Wolves are hunters, and so are we. Our clients retain our security services not only for protection from known threats, but also to ANTICIPATE, IDENTIFY and if necessary… ELIMINATE potential threats to their work and safety.
You will be given a series of MISSIONS to complete over the next three weeks. While we believe completion is its own reward, top performers will be given consideration for highly sought after Wolfpack positions. In addition, winners who successfully complete two or more missions will receive a prize.
Be on the lookout for your first assignment. And always remember: THE STRENGTH OF THE WOLF IS THE PACK!”
The game begins
After a week, recruitment was closed, and the first mission e-mail was sent. The first mission e-mail:
ATTENTION: TIP TRAINEE.
Your first OSIG mission is here.
Shortly after September 11th, our government formed a series of Think Tanks where participants from a variety of fields were asked to imagine highly detailed “worst case” terror scenarios. They were told that if the U.S. and its allies had such blueprints for terror, we could devise defenses against such attacks before our terrorist enemies even thought of them.
We have reason to believe that some of the participants are continuing to communicate after their participation in their Think Tank. Our client, who shall remain nameless, believes these individuals may harbor hostile intent towards them. The fact that they may have access to terror scenarios makes them extremely dangerous.
Our client has presented The Wolfpack extremely limited intelligence on these individuals. We know don’t know who they are. We only know they are using brief code words to communicate, along with a time. The code words: Krammada Elbas. The Time: 5:30.
It is essential that you identify three of these individuals by sending The Wolfpack their NAMES in an E-MAIL TO THIS ADDRESS. In order to advance in T.I.P., you must complete this mission by no later than 11:59 AM Pacific Time. March 15th, 2009. That is the date we will be ready to implement the next phase of this security operation. Shortly after, a second mission will follow.
With this and any mission, we DEMAND that you act within the boundaries of all civil and criminal law: local, state, Federal, domestic and foreign. Secrecy is of the utmost importance. DO NOT attempt to contact the individuals under any circumstances. We do, however, not only condone but encourage cooperation. After all: THE STRENGTH OF THE WOLF IS THE PACK.
We wanted to ease players into the game with a mission that wasn’t too hard. Nearly everyone who participated got the first answer right. For those who didn’t, the game was structured in a way that you didn’t have to get all three right, just two out of three. In case very few people answered correctly, we didn’t want them to get a “game over” screen this early.
“All” you had to do was type “krammada elbas” (my full name – Mark Adam Sable -backwards) 5:30 into Google. Do that, and you’d come up with blogs for the three supporting characters in the comic who I chose to focus on for the ARG:
Peak Oil, aka Nathaniel Houston, a geologist, economist and conspiracy theorist had (and still has) the following blog: www.peakoilishere.blogspot.com.
Peak wound up becoming the protagonist of the ARG, and/or the target, depending on the choices the players made later in the game. His blog starts out as the rantings of a conspiracy nut, but as the game progressed, the blog and later his Twitter updates become a debate between him and his fellow Think Tank members and the story of a fugitive on the run.
Isomer – aka Heinrich “Henry” Greisman, was a nuclear physicist, holocaust survivor and creator of the theoretically impossible nuclear hand grenade. His blog www.isomergrenade.livejournal.com was a collection of interviews from his daughter, who wanted to preserve her elderly father’s remarkable life story. That story that spanned the Holocaust, the Manhattan Project and present-day fringe science funded by the Pentagon.
My personal favorite character and blog was www.bringontheendtimes.wordpress.com. It’s the slightly tongue-in-cheek ramblings of Thurston Veigh, aka The Prophet. A Timothy Le Hay-type (author of Left Behind) Christian Fundamentalist writer. He takes the idea of The Rapture/Second Coming to another level.
He’s not content to wait for Second Coming -– he wants to bring it about. In the comic, we’ll see what happens when others take his words seriously, and decide to use violence to achieve those aims. The idea of writers and scientists having to deal with the consequences of others misinterpreting and misusing their work is very much part of the premise and theme of Unthinkable.
The challenge was making them seem like real people, who had existed years before the ARG began. I probably spent just as much time writing the back story in the blogs as I did writing the first couple issues.
The characters really did take on a life on their own, and I experienced what I can only call serendipity. In issue one, one of the terror attacks involves introducing a chemical called Methyl Nitrate into an oil refinery in order to blow it up. Peak Oil warns about this on his blog.
At the same time, I wanted to make Isomer a physicist in pre-war Germany who was both a victim of the concentration camps and a participant in the Manhattan project. That meant that he had to be in the first camp liberated by Americans. That camp was one where Jews worked as slave laborers to build V-2 rockets (precursors to the ICMBS Isomer would later work on).
The highly unstable fuel used for V-2 rockets? Methyl Nitrate. And the kicker was the name of the military unit that liberated the camp – The Tinberwolf Brigade. The founder of The Wolfpack named the PMC after that division, in which his father, a WWII vet, served.
I couldn’t have made things like that up if I tried. Further, I wound up using these things I discovered about the characters in the comic as well as the ARG. Writing the ARG informed the comics in a way I never imagined it would.
I think I was successful in making the characters feel like living, breathing people who existed before the ARG, and who could interact with players better than AI ever could. But I was very wary of making them TOO real. My biggest fear was that some people might mistake this for a real conspiracy. It’s a fine line to walk between making the conspiracy believable and not scaring non-players.
Think my fears are paranoid or egotistical? As I write this, I’m just in from a cross country flight. I was detained by the TSA (Transportation and Safety Administration), whose agents actually read through the script for the third issue. I don’t know whether the ARG flagged me or I was subject to a random search. It was unpleasant; I mean, it was hard enough explaining that comics are not always about superheroes and that people actually write scripts for them, let alone that you are writing about fictional scenarios, not plotting terror.
On the other hand, I could appreciate the irony of the situation and laugh about it now. Unthinkable – both the comic and the ARG — blend fiction and reality. I should have expected a little reality would intrude on me at some point.
In part 2, I’ll talk about the final two missions, where the game became interactive and I found myself “playing” the characters as they attempted to evade scrutiny and capture from the players.